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[whitespace] Michael Lerner Global Godliness

Celebrity Rabbi Michael Lerner shares his message that an 'Emancipatory Spirituality' is necessary forsurvival of the human species

By Davina Baum


RABBI MICHAEL LERNER opens the door to his Berkeley hills house with a modest, warm smile, welcoming me into a living room with a dramatic view of the bay. With scraggly, graying hair escaping from a slightly askew yarmulke, dressed in a plaid shirt and khakis, sitting in a living room filled with books, Lerner certainly looks the part of modern Jewish intellectual. This is no act, though. Lerner, who advised the Clinton administration in its early days, then retreated from the national stage while receiving his ordination as a rabbi, opening a San Francisco congregation and surviving a near-death experience, has a new, nondenominational message. With his book, 'Spirit Matters,' he is taking his case directly to the public with calls for a new social movement that challenges current economic and social behavior, a revamping of our legal, educational and health systems and a constitutional amendment that would hold large corporations responsible for the social and environmental effects of their business activities. He hopes that his idealistic message--placing human and spiritual values ahead of material ones--will raise questions about the globalization of communication and economic activity, particularly in Silicon Valley.

How did your book, 'Spirit Matters,' come about?

For about 20 years I worked as a psychotherapist with the Institute for Labor and Mental Health. We were working primarily with people who were just dealing with the stress of the workplace and family life. And what we learned was that although people certainly were concerned with their economic well-being, there was this central issue that people were facing, what I call the "deprivation of meaning."

People felt a real lack of access in their life, a hunger for some framework of meaning and purpose to their lives that would transcend the individualism and selfishness of the competitive marketplace and connect them with some higher value. What I do in 'Spirit Matters,' in part, is to show how many of the social problems that we face today are themselves rooted in the accumulated pain that comes from living in a society where your spiritual needs are being frustrated.

Why doesn't organized religion stand in for this need?

Well, it does, for one thing. A huge number of people go to churches or synagogues or ashrams, or find some alternative form of spirituality. But those spiritual paths have been confined to personal life and particularly to the weekend. So part of what I try to do in 'Spirit Matters' is to show that we can bring the values of our inner spiritual understanding into the rest of our lives. One of the things that I'm asking for is for people to come out of the closet as spiritual beings, to bring their spirituality out of their personal life and into transforming the social reality in which they live.

How do you explain "Emancipatory Spirituality"?

Emancipatory Spirituality has many levels. The central idea is to develop our capacity to see ourselves as part of the "Unity of All Being." One part of that is to be able to see others as equally important to ourselves, "as equally precious to us as a finger." Another part is responding to the universe in a nonutilitarian way, with awe and wonder at the grandeur of creation. Another element is to seek a new bottom line in American society. The bottom line here is money and power; the bottom line we want is love and caring, awe and wonder, ethical, spiritual and ecological sensitivity. What we want is a whole new definition of productivity, efficiency and rationality. Another element is to affirm the body, affirm pleasure; the critique of selfishness and materialism is not therefore in the name of suffering, pain and denial; it very much affirms pleasure, bodily enjoyment, sexuality.

Do you feel that your message will be heard amidst the clutter of the information age?

There's been tremendous response wherever I go. The gatekeepers don't want me in the media; cynical politicians, and some-- but not all--corporate leaders. My own experience is that the people who are most cynical about an alternative are people who themselves, at some point in their life, actually desired to live by a different set of values, but they were so hurt, so ridiculed, that they gave up and said, "I'm not going to subject myself to that again." It's not the case that cynical people are never going to be reached by this message, because actually they have the same desires; almost everyone does. And that then gets us to corporate leaders. I have met many corporate leaders, both in Silicon Valley and in other places, who tell me that they really wish they could live in a world consisting of the values that I'm talking about, only that they have a fiduciary responsibility to their investors to maximize profits and put the profits as the bottom line in their corporate life.

What is the specific message you hope will be heard in Silicon Valley?

The parts of you that feel you are not being fully realized as a human being, and not able to live in accord with your highest spiritual and moral calling, those parts are real. They are not some individual, personal pathology; they are shared by millions of other people including many of the people who work around you. So stop feeling that you have no alternative--there is an alternative. Meaning and purpose is not to be found in material worth. The impact of market consciousness that momentarily brings the excitement of quick money eventually will bring tremendous amounts of pain into the lives of many people in Silicon Valley. It's not that money is bad; it's that money without meaning is bad.

What about modern politics and its flirtation with religion? Do you see this as a positive step, or is it purely superficial?

I think it's positive in the sense that it raises the possibility of going deeper, and that's what 'Spirit Matters' is--it goes much deeper. In the way that it's done, I see a great danger, because it's a cheap manipulation of religious and spiritual values. These people talk about God, but they don't put policies forward that would embody the spirit of God. Both major parties have become primarily subordinate to the interests of corporate power.

Do you envision a time frame in which this new world order could materialize?

Well, I think that within 20 to 30 years, the Social Responsibility Amendment to the Constitution will be at least as central in American politics as the ERA was. The ERA never passed, but it had tremendous impact in public discourse.

Do you see yourself as a leader of a social movement?

I see myself as a theorist for it. I have all kinds of personal defects that make me not the perfect leader. I have a terrible memory, I don't remember people's names, and so people feel invalidated by that. I feel like I'm overly critical, impatient, so I don't think I'm the perfect leader for a social change group, but I think I can do a good job on the sidelines. I do feel myself to be a spiritual leader in the sense that I've created a spiritual community --it's a Jewish community but embodies many of these values--in Beyt Tikkun Synagogue in San Francisco.

How do you practice loving kindness in your daily life?

It's always a struggle. I, like everyone else, am pushed by all the things that you have to do into not fully seeing the people in front of you, so I meditate and pray each day. Whenever I can, I look at other people in a compassionate way and try to figure out what, in this situation, could I do to affirm them and show them that I see their beauty. But I'm an imperfect vehicle, and I work on it each day.

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From the September 21-27, 2000 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2000 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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